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Black Baby Born

by Toni Martin

My ninety-six-year-old mother, shrunken two inches under five feet, sits in her recliner and waits. She says that she has never lived like this, in a place where she has to wait for everything—to go to meals, to come back from meals, to wash, to dress, to go to bed. As though it is the fault of the help in assisted living that she is stuck in a wheelchair. Because of this limitation, she would have to wait wherever she was. A few years ago, after fourteen years living with one daughter and the next, she wanted her own apartment. In those years, when she could still walk, she said she wanted to be independent, as though she were twenty-one and setting out from her parents’ home. She has never seen herself as others see her.

When my mother visited the passport office for the first time in the nineteen fifties, they thought she was white because of her light skin color, and they thought she was crazy because the birth certificate she offered them as proof of her identity read, “Black baby born, April 21, 1914.” She had to locate her baptismal certificate, which included her name and sex, before they would issue her a passport.

She left one senior apartment in a huff because the white people there couldn’t tell that she was black. Always her father’s daughter or her husband’s wife, even when she held a job, she had never faced explaining to white people on a daily basis how she could be black. Lucky her.

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Recordings

by J.D. Scrimgeour

I was named after my grandfather, John Harold Scrimgeour, a man who was over seventy by the time I would be old enough to preserve any memories of him. My mother said once that she wanted to name me “Jonathan”” and spell my name the less conventional way—J-O-N—but my father said no. Like his father, I would be “John”—J-O-H-N.

I hardly remember my grandfather. By everyone’s account, he was a kind man. In some tapes I made with my Uncle, also named John, before he died of a brain tumor, my uncle said that my grandfather “had an acceptance and love of others as they were. He wasn’t concerned if you were a success or not, he just wanted you to be happy and be yourself.”

My grandfather worked most of his life driving a truck for his brother’s electric company, though he could have taken an easier, higher-paying office job. My father and John have told how he used to take the neighborhood kids for rides to the swimming hole in the back of the company pickup truck after he got off of work.

My grandfather lived in a decrepit house in West Boylston, Massachusetts, with his mentally troubled wife, who almost never left her bedroom. In my childhood, my family lived in Illinois, and so we didn’t visit often, maybe on Christmas if we came back east. There was always a clutch of cats around the house, and I remember the grimy kitchen smelling strongly of tuna, an unwashed can sitting in the sink.

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My Summer Mother

by Sharon Frame Gay

The corridors in the nursing home were quieter than usual. It was a Saturday, only a skeleton staff striding the halls.

I slipped into her room and found her sleeping. Nodding at her new roommate, I set up a small table from home, fitting the little Christmas tree on it, lighting it, and fetching decorations from my bag, I placed them around the tree.

"Mom," I whispered, "Wake up. See what I brought you.” Her eyes opened slowly, then widened with happiness as she looked at her surprise. "So pretty,” she murmured.

"It's your own tree, from home, Mom," I reminded her, and she nodded, staring at the fiber optic tree that she had bought several years ago. She smiled sweetly, drinking in the sight, then turned and peered up into my face.

"I want all my money, my checkbook, bank account statements, and credit cards, right now," she hissed, " I am canceling Medicaid, leaving this place, and I am completely finished with you. You're a liar and a thief, and you have even tricked your poor brother into believing the things you say."

So begins another day, channeling through the sundry personalities that morph like the lights on the Christmas tree, daily, hourly, minute to minute. My mother. My jailer, my muse, my genetic partner, and my childhood fairy princess, now turned into an evil witch who smears poison apples against my teeth and begs me to swallow. 

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